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This is the first of three posts celebrating the work of journalists/academics/photographers bringing to popular conscience the abuse of women in the American prison system.

I have called this triplet mini-series Women Behind Bars and it was spurred by a couple of news stories this week. In New York state, protesters outside the Governors house drew a promise from David Paterson that he’d sign legislation banning the chaining of incarcerated women who are giving birth.

Also, a class action lawsuit is gearing up in Michigan, which seeks a $100million settlement for over 900 female inmates and former-inmates who suffered harassment, groping and rape between the years of 1993 and 2009.

Women Behind Bars as a name for this mini-series was co opted from the Silja J. Talvi‘s most recent book of the same title.

Talvi, Silja - Women Behind Bars

I had the pleasure of hearing Silja talk at the Seattle Public Library. Silja speaks as she writes – without jargon or polygonal argument. She keeps it simple; she is usually retelling the testimony of female prisoners she has visited and interviewed. No flourish required.

Beyond the physical and sexual harassment of female prisoners, Talvi asks us to reevaluate our understanding of psychological welfare as it is handled by the prison system. The 775% increase in the US female prison population since 1977 is – for want of a better word – criminal. It is double the rate of growth for the male prison population. Talvi is in no doubt that this increase is due for the most part to the war on drugs. Talvi also describes the constituencies entering US womens prisons.

Nearly every woman I interviewed (around 100) had a serious history of trauma or abuse in her life, emotional abuse or sexual abuse or domestic violence. Many had been raped. More than a third of the women entering the prison system were homeless, while 70 percent had moderate or severe mental illness.

Talvi’s work crystallises the fact that the massive incarceration of American women has not been a result of crime on the streets, but a result of criminalisation by writ of political assemblies. In the war on drugs, women are involved but surely we must analyse that involvement. Occupying residence, associating with family drug dealers are indirect misdemeanours that stand to be punished. When a society is blighted by drugs and the dealers are involved in the “war” on the street, usually it is women who hold the threads of family and community – and home – together … despite its faults and its drug use.

Talvi points to another remarkable trend,

There’s also the fact that women are less likely than men to snitch on loved ones. Prosecutors will come to them and say they will go to prison unless they give up the names of three higher-ups, but women usually either say they don’t know those people or will simply decline. Men will snitch and, unfortunately, they often get less time in prison than women who don’t.

The shocking statistics are simply an application of US culture that is too morally bankrupt & class divided to think of more imaginative forms of criminal justice than incarceration.

Prison is a violent, inhumane environment – the modern designations of built with violent offenders in mind. But what proportion of women prisoners are violent? Not nearly as many as our fear-gripped culture would presume.

The prison is a disciplinary tool that has needlessly subjugated women. It has been imposed and it has demolished poor communities.

When Talvi supports prison for violent murderers and rapists and then argues for its non-implementation for female ‘criminals’ she is entirely consistent. The prison has a place, but it is not in the persecution of non-violent females, it’s counter to the notion of justice and it flies in the face of social justice.

As This Is Not A Book Sale put it,

Even readers who believe that the main goal of incarceration is to punish and not to rehabilitate prisoners for successful reentry into society, will be horrified by the treatment that many women have faced behind bars in this country

The book Women Behind Bars was produced as part of the Women Behind Bars Project which:

Works to break away from black-and-white rhetoric on issues of crime and punishment in general – and females in the criminal justice system in particular. The prison crisis has been compounded by the multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar strategy of fighting the American War on Drugs

As a part of the drug war, girls and women have been swept along in ever-greater numbers, owing in great part to the mandatory minimum sentencing, federal “conspiracy” charges, and weighty allocation of public funds for drug-related undercover operations, sweeps, arrests, and prosecutions in both rural and urban areas.


Women Behind Bars. The Book: More and more women—mothers, grandmothers, wives, daughters, and sisters—are doing hard prison time all across the United States. Many of them are facing the prospect of years, decades, even lifetimes behind bars. Oddly, there’s been little public discussion about the dramatic increase of women in the prison system. What exactly is happening here, and why?

Bio: Silja J. A. Talvi is an award-winning journalist with credits in more than seventy-five publications nationwide, including The Nation, In These Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. She was honored as a recipient of the 2005 and 2006 PASS awards for criminal justice reporting by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a 2006 New American Media Award, and twelve regional SPJ awards for excellence in journalism. Talvi’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor, Body Outlaws, The W Effect, It’s So You, and Prison Profiteers. She lives in Seattle.


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